Botanists meet to share new plant discoveries

Published 02 December 2009

botanypicBotanists from Australia and abroad are meeting at the University of New England this week to discuss new discoveries that are fundamental to the protection of Australia’s biodiversity.

They are attending the 2009 conference of the Australian Systematic Botany Society, where they are talking about the discovery and classification of new plant species.

“According to conservative estimates, 20 per cent of all Australia’s plant species are still unrecorded,” said UNE’s Associate Professor Jeremy Bruhl, the convener of the conference. “And that estimate jumps to about 75 per cent when looking at certain groups of plants.”

The Executive Director of the Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Dr Tim Entwisle, who is participating in the conference, emphasised the vital importance of discovering, naming and classifying plant species – particularly those under threat from land clearing, weeds, or climate change. “The great risk is that we’ll lose things we don’t know anything about,” Dr Entwisle said.

Ian Telford, the Honorary Curator of UNE’s N.C.W. Beadle Herbarium and one of the organisers of the conference, said that he would be taking the delegates on a field trip to the New England National Park where, within a short walk of the lookout, they would encounter eight still-unnamed species of plants.

The conference, which has attracted 100 delegates from throughout Australia and from New Zealand, The Netherlands, the UK and the United States, is running from Tuesday the 1st till Thursday the 3rd of December. Its title – “Systematic botany: from science to society” – acknowledges the fundamental importance of plant classification to all new developments of plant-based foods and other products.

“Botany is a science that’s evolving very rapidly,” Dr Entwisle said, “particularly because of new techniques for studying plants at the molecular level and determining their evolutionary relationships.” The keynote speaker at the conference – Peter Stevens, Professor of Biology at the University of Missouri in St Louis, USA, and Curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden – said that this rapid development of ideas about the evolutionary relationships of plants needed to be complemented by a consistent terminology – “a synthesis of the wealth of character information accumulated over the last 150 years”.

Professor Stevens spoke about a Web site – the Angiosperm Phylogeny Website – that uses a consistent vocabulary for flowering plants. This consistency of terms, he said, allows for more efficient communication among biologists.

The conference program includes a workshop titled “National accreditation of providers of biological identification”, aimed at developing a system that would provide either professional accreditation for consultants who give environmental advice to governments and industry, or quality assurance for the outcome of that advice.

“As an organisation of professional botanists, we want to ensure that consultants are giving advice based on the best information,” Dr Entwisle said.

Clicking on the botanical image displayed here reveals a photograph of (from left) Ian Telford, Professor Peter Stevens, Associate Professor Jeremy Bruhl, and Dr Tim Entwisle.